The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has approved a new nuclear power project in the country for the first time since 1978, clearing the way for Atlanta-based Southern Co. to build two reactors at its Plant Vogtle site near Augusta.

The nuclear safety watchdog endorsed a license on a 4-1 vote over objections raised by environmentalists and NRC chairman Gregory Jaczko. Thursday's vote clears the way for officials to issue an operating license for reactors, which could start commissioning as soon as 2016 and 2017.

The project is on track, and our targets related to cost and schedule are achievable, Southern CEO Thomas Fanning said in a statement.

The Obama administration has stated its support for nuclear power and the industry believes that a nuclear renaissance is in the making. This is a historic day, Nuclear Energy Institute President Marvin Fertel said in a statement. Today’s licensing action sounds a clarion call to the world that the United States recognizes the importance of expanding nuclear energy as a key component of a low-carbon energy future that is central to job creation, diversity of electricity supply and energy security, the statement added.

The NRC had taken steps to improve safety at the 104 reactors across the U.S. Subsequent to the Sept. 11 attacks. The watchdog also urged the current nuclear operators to ensure that their reactors' shield buildings could withstand large airplane collisions.

Nuclear power provides the country with about 18 percent of its total electricity needs. Coal is the nation's largest source of electricity, providing 43 percent of the energy requirements while natural gas makes up for another 25 percent, according to the Energy Information Agency.